Body bags at scene of Malaysia Airlines crash; Ukraine accuses rebels of looting

Posted at 11:46 AM, Jul 19, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-19 13:46:57-04
By Tom Cohen, Laura Smith-Spark and Phil Black


DONETSK, Ukraine (CNN) — Two days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in the war zone of eastern Ukraine, the grim task began of gathering the remains of some of the 298 victims of the disaster in body bags ready for removal.

Artillery fire could be heard in the near distance from the crash scene, where a team of observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe gained access Saturday for a second day.

With evidence so far showing the commercial flight was shot down, international pressure increased Saturday for Russia to exert its influence over separatist rebels it supports who are fighting the Ukrainian government in the region.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the European Union needs to reconsider its approach to Russia in light of the evidence that the rebels fired the fatal missile.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to express “strong concern of the need to de-escalate tensions” in Ukraine after the plane disaster, including an immediate cease-fire, and to ensure access to the crash site, a senior State Department official told CNN.

Access an issue

Access to the crash site became the major focus in the Donetsk region controlled by the pro-Russion rebels where the plane debris came down in a huge swath.

OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw, briefing reporters from the scene, said the observers were still being denied access to certain areas but that their movements were freer than the previous day, when they were met with hostility by rebels.

He said that experts now have professional body bags and are gathering body parts in them. The bags are being left by the road for collection.

The fields where the plane came down Thursday, near the town of Torez, are in a volatile rebel-controlled area, making access to the scattered debris, bodies and body parts difficult.

The United States said a surface-to-air missile fired from rebel territory took down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The plane, which had 298 people aboard from more than 10 nations, was traveling from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Ukrainian officials on Saturday blamed the security issues on factionalism and lack of internal communication among the pro-Russian rebels.

Some rebel groups in the area have agreed to give OSCE experts access to the wreckage, while others have not, a spokesperson for Donetsk Governor Oleksandr Omelchenko said Saturday. He said the conditions make it impossible to know if all the armed rebels have left an area.

This is consistent with what CNN journalists have seen at the debris field. Earlier Saturday, a rebel commander on the ground gave a group of CNN journalists permission to approach the wreckage, but within 30 minutes warning shots were heard and the journalists were told to leave.


Since the crash, the Ukrainian government and rebels have traded bitter accusations over who was responsible and what has been done since.

Alexander Borodai, leader of the rebels in Donetsk, said Saturday he believed the flight was shot down but reiterated that his forces did not do it. He told reporters the rebels lacked the firepower to hit an airplane so high up.

Borodai also denied claims by the Ukrainian government that the rebels had already removed 38 bodies from the scene and taken them to a morgue in Donetsk, a rebel stronghold.

He told a news conference the rebels had not removed any bodies and were waiting for international experts to act.

“There is even a house where a body fell, the landlord asked us to remove and we haven’t because we are not allowed to move anything,” said Borodai, who calls himself the prime minister of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic.

Looting claim

Ukraine’s government also said it had received information of looting of various items, including money and jewelry, and urged relatives to cancel the victims’ credit cards.

But a CNN crew at the scene Saturday said it did not see any signs of looting or the rebels rummaging through items at the crash site. Pro-Russian rebels have been moving around the site since the plane crashed.

A government statement also accused the rebels of “seeking to export large-sized transport aircraft wreckage to Russia.”

It appealed for the international community to put pressure on Moscow to rein in the rebels, saying, “Russia is supporting terrorists in their attempts to destroy evidence of international crime.”

In addition, Ukrainian officials repeated their claim that Russia had been involved in the shooting down of the Boeing 777.

Vitaly Nayda, counterintellligence chief for Ukraine’s Security Service, told reporters in Kiev that a Russian-made Buk M1 missile system had shot down MH17 and showed a photo of what he claimed was the missile’s smoke trail.

Nayda claimed that three Buk missile systems had crossed from Russia to Ukraine prior to the downing of MH17, accompanied by Russian nationals who, he said, were the ones operating the sophisticated weaponry. Nayda said that all three Buk surface-to-air antiaircraft missile systems are no longer in Ukrainian territory.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in an interview with CNN on Saturday, also suggested that whoever operated the missile system had had expert training.

“This is not the Russian-led drunk terrorist who pressed the button,” he said. “This is someone well-trained. Someone who knows how this machine works. Someone who has experience.”

Ukraine and the international community “will find out all responsible for this international crime, and those who supported them, because this is (a) crime against humanity, and the building of (the) International Criminal Court is very big,” Yatsenyuk added.

One key issue for investigators is the location of the plane’s flight data recorders, which may hold crucial data.

The Ukrainian government said Friday that MH17’s flight data recorders are still in Ukrainian territory but didn’t clarify whether they were in Ukraine’s possession.

Russia has denied any involvement, and President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine’s military campaign against the separatists was to blame. He also has called for a “thorough and objective investigation” of the crash.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Putin in a phone call Saturday to exert his influence on the pro-Russian rebels to allow crash investigators free access to the site, a German government spokesman said.

Putin and Merkel agreed on the importance of a cease-fire between the pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine’s government, the spokesman said.

‘Crime scene’ doesn’t appear to be compromised

Bociurkiw, the OSCE spokesman, told reporters Saturday that the observers have seen that large pieces of debris have not been disturbed, but much of it is badly burned, he said.

At the same time, he said, they have come across duty-free bags with bottles of liquor from Schiphol Airport that are still intact.

When a larger, 21-strong OSCE team arrived among the blackened debris on Friday, armed local militiamen greeted them with hostility and limited their access to the site, he said.

“There didn’t seem to be anyone really in control,” said Bociurkiw after that visit.

Bociurkiw said the group only stayed about 75 minutes and examined about 200 meters at the scene Friday before being forced to leave. Pieces of the airplane and bodies are spread over several kilometers.

But, he added, “I don’t think too much of the crime scene has been compromised already. The bodies are still there. They have not been tampered with. We actually spoke to some civilian emergency workers. They said their job was just to mark where the bodies are.”

In an indication of the volatility of the region, at least five Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in the past 24 hours in clashes with pro-Russian separatists only 100 kilometers from the debris fields, Lt. Col. Vladislav Seleznyov told CNN on Saturday.

Fighting is taking place around the Luhansk airport and the Metalist neighborhood of Luhansk, said Seleznyov, a Ukrainian military spokesman. The pro-Russian separatists are firing with heavy artillery, mortars and Grad rockets, he said.

‘We need to retrieve the human remains’

Malaysian investigators also touched down in Kiev on Saturday to try to get the bottom of what happened to the jetliner.

But Malaysia’s official news agency Bernama said they were still negotiating with pro-Russian rebels over access for their 131-member team.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai insisted Saturday in Kuala Lumpur that Malaysia must have full, safe access to the crash site, and that it is “deeply concerned that the crash site has not yet been properly secured.”

The site’s integrity has been compromised, Liow said, and “there are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place.”

He warned that interference with the crash scene risked undermining the investigation into what happened. Bodies are also not being treated with proper respect.

The transportation minister said he and other senior officials would also travel to Kiev to support the Ukrainian authorities in their investigation.

“Since the plane went down, the remains of 298 people lie uncovered. Citizens of 11 nations, none of whom are involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, cannot be laid to rest,” he said.

“We need to retrieve the human remains as fast as we can.”

An international tragedy

The full list of the passengers was released Saturday. According to a final breakdown from Malaysia Airlines, 193 of those killed were from the Netherlands, including one who had dual U.S.-Dutch citizenship.

There were also 43 victims from Malaysia, including the plane’s 15 crew; 27 from Australia; 12 from Indonesia; 10 from the United Kingdom, including one who had dual UK-South African citizenship; four each from Germany and Belgium; three from the Philippines and one each from Canada and New Zealand.

Eighty of the victims were children, the United Nations said.

In the Netherlands, dozens of police officers are now visiting all the families of the victims. They will gather specific information that will help identify the victims, such as DNA samples, details of tattoos and dental records, the Dutch police said. A Dutch forensics team has already arrived in Ukraine.

The FBI is sending two investigators to work on the case, a U.S. law enforcement official said, but the Ukraine government will be in charge of the investigation.

Australia is sending six foreign affairs officers to Kiev to assist in the investigation, the country’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Saturday.

The Kremlin has criticized Abbott over his harsh words on possible Russian involvement in the tragedy. He repeated them Saturday.

“Australia takes a very dim view of countries which facilitate killing of Australians, as you’d expect us to. We take a very, very dim view of this and the idea that Russia can wash its hands of responsibility, because this happened in Ukrainian airspace, just does not stand serious scrutiny,” Abbott said.

Obama’s focus on Russia

Russia likely bears some of the responsibility for the apparent downing of Flight 17, U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday.

Obama said rebel fighters couldn’t have operated the surface-to-air missile believed responsible for the shootdown “without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia.”

He and other U.S. officials stopped short of publicly placing the responsibility on Russia, which has denied involvement in the destruction of the jetliner.

But a senior defense official told CNN that the “working theory” among U.S. intelligence analysts is that the Russian military supplied the Buk missile system to rebel fighters inside Ukraine.

Among the evidence cited by U.S. officials and others for their conclusions was an audio recording released by Ukrainian intelligence officials that purportedly featured pro-Russian rebels and Russian military officers discussing a surface-to-air strike.

CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of this audio, or other similar recordings.

A day before MH17 came down, Obama announced expanded sanctions against a number of major Russian companies in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

In an apparently retaliatory move, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Saturday that Russia had added the names of a number of American citizens to a list that bans them from entering Russia.

Russia-Ukraine dispute

Tensions have been high between Ukraine and Russia since street protests forced former pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February. Russia subsequently annexed Ukraine’s southeastern Crimea region, and a pro-Russian separatist rebellion has been raging in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Ukraine has accused Russia of allowing weapons and military equipment, including tanks, to cross the border illegally into the hands of pro-Russian rebels.

CNN’s Phil Black reported from Donetsk and Laura Smith-Spark reported and wrote from London. CNN’s Nic Robertson, Ivan Watson, Barbara Starr, Pam Brown, Jim Sciutto, Brian Walker, Ralph Ellis, Paul Ferguson and Antonia Mortensen also contributed to this report, as did journalists Victoria Butenko and Azad Safarov.

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